A Linguistic ‘Insight’ That Was Not Terribly Insightful


An article recently posted by a Facebook friend about the “ancient kinship” of Sanskrit and Russian brought to mind a linguistic “insight” that popped into my head several decades ago.

Ever since I learned, as a graduate student, about the great prehistoric migrations of people out of the Eurasian steppes, westward into Europe and southward into Persia and India, I had known that these migrants carried with them word roots that remain alive today in such apparently disparate tongues as Spanish and Hindi. That’s because these ancient people were all speakers of Proto-Indo-European or its descendant languages, the ancestors of today’s Celtic, Romance, Germanic, Slavic and Indo-Iranian tongues, among many others.

Counting to 10 in Spanish and Hindi, for example, is quite revealing:
Spanish: uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis, siete, ocho, nueve, diez
Hindi: ek, do, tin, char, panch, che, sat, ot, no, des

Hindi’s ek seems unrelated to Spanish uno, but most of the other numbers are uncannily similar in both Madrid and Delhi, nearly 6,000 miles apart – dos/do, tres/tin, siete/sat, ocho/ot (oito in Portuguese), nueve/no, diez/des. Char may not sound all that close to cuatro, but it certainly reminds me of the Russian for four: chetire. Similarly, panch may not sound much like cinco, but it’s clearly related to pyat in Russian and pente (from which we derive the word pentagon) in Greek.

At one point I thought I’d detected a relationship between the words for “to lose” and “to fart” in a couple of Indo-European languages. In Spanish, perder means “to lose.” And “to fart” is pederse. Drop the “se,” the mark of a reflexive verb, and you have peder. Very close to perder! After all, when you fart, you’re losing something, right? My occasionally scatological mind appeared to have stumbled across an obscure linguistic link. I thought I’d had an insight.

Moreover, peder sounds an awful lot like peidar (Portuguese), perdet (Russian) and padna (Hindi) – the words for “to fart” in the other languages I’ve learned. (You might conclude that I sniff around for off-color words in other languages, and you’d be right.) When you drop the infinitive endings in each language (er, ar, et and na), you are left with ped, peid, perd and pad. To me, all those verb stems sounded an awful lot like that root of perder (Spanish for “lose”).

In Portuguese, “to lose” is also perder, but it turns out that the similarity of the Iberian roots for “lose” and “fart” didn’t penetrate too much farther into Europe.* When I finally remembered how to say “lose” in Russian, I recalled that it’s teryat. I couldn’t remember the word in Hindi, so I looked it up: harna. So much for that linguistic “insight”!

But until I saw that my “insight” failed the “smell test,” it got a good laugh from several friends. Thanks, fellas!


*Lose = perder (Spanish & Portuguese), perdre (French)

Fart = pederse (vb)/pedo (n) – Spanish
peidar (vb)/peido (n) – Portuguese
pêter (vb)/pet (n) – French
petare (vb)/peto (n) – Italian
pârţâi (vb)/pârţ (n) – Romanian
perdet/пердеть (vb), perdyozh/пердёж (n) – Russian (where, amusingly, a slang term for “silent but deadly fart” is partisan [партизан] = guerilla)
padna/पादना (vb) – Hindi
furzen (vb)/furz (n) – German
fartzn/פֿאַרצען (vb), fartz/פֿאָרץ (n) – Yiddish

In going from one language to another, the T sound often shifts to D; the P sound often shifts to F.

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